by Kenneth Corbin

What Tech Issues Loom Large for Election 2012?

News Analysis
May 16, 20128 mins

After three-and-a-half years of Obama's presidency, progressive and conservatives have developed pointed assessments of his administration's handling of tech policy issues. From cybersecurity to net neutrality, how does the tech agenda fit into the fall election?

WASHINGTON—This fall’s presidential election certainly will not tip on the candidates’ views on technology policy, but for industry groups and a slew of inside-the-beltway types, issues such as cybersecurity, net neutrality and spectrum reform are matters of deep concern.

Moreover, the fissures on those issues are to an extent emblematic of the broader philosophical divisions between the candidates that figure to play prominently in the campaign.

A panel of tech policy advocates representing both left- and right-leaning groups gathered here at the Capitol building for a debate that offered a preview of the litany of technology issues that will await the next administration, sharing thoughts on the extent to which any has a chance of entering the mainstream debate.

“If there’s one issue that has a possibility of engaging the electorate this year out of the tech policy area, it may be cybersecurity,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm that is shutting its doors this month after nearly 40 years of media, technology and telecom advocacy work in Washington.

“This can affect everybody’s everyday interactions on the Internet,” said Schwartzman. “Even if people do not understand the details of what everyone in Washington is debating about, they do understand the concern, the threat that the nation faces to national security, as well as an instinctive understanding of the intrusiveness and potentially anti-democratic impact of excessive national security concerns overwhelming civil liberties and personal freedoms. So I think it is potentially the most important issue.”

Cybersecurity is not in itself a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats generally agree that the threat is real and that current policies are inadequate. There is also some mutual concern that certain proposed remedies, such as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection that cleared the U.S. House of Representatives in April, could infringe on Internet users’ privacy and civil liberties.

Other legislative proposals, some of which have seen a modest show of bipartisan support, would entail a more comprehensive overhaul of the federal cybersecurity apparatus than CISPA, which primarily focuses on sharing information between businesses and government entities. That inevitably raises the concern of heightened government involvement in overseeing the private sector—always a concern for opponents of regulation, but particularly so in such a fast-evolving and critical area as cybersecurity.

“I would argue that the private companies can take care of themselves,” said Seton Motley, president of Less Government, a group that advocates for hands-off policies and First Amendment issues, among other areas. “My concern is with the government networks,” Motley said, suggesting that federal agencies would be wise to outsource their security operations, just as the Defense Department contracts with firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to build its aircraft.

Net Neutrality

If there is at least a limited consensus across the aisle that cybersecurity demands some level of government attention, that agreement disappears when it comes to oversight of the commercial broadband market. For at least the better part of a decade, the flash point of that debate has been network neutrality, the notion that ISPs should be prohibited from blocking or slowing the transmission of lawful applications and content on their networks.

For progressive groups—as well as many Web companies—that precept is accepted as a matter of dogma.

“Voters should be concerned maybe not specifically about net neutrality but about preserving an open Internet, however that’s accomplished,” said Gigi Sohn, president of the digital-rights group Public Knowledge. “That principle has to be preserved.”

Sohn, like other open Internet advocates, argues that factors such as the consolidation and diminished competition in the ISP market necessitate that there be basic rules of the road to ensure that users with few choices among providers can access the content of their choosing without concern that its delivery may be slowed or blocked.

In a debate that has become increasingly partisan in nature, net neutrality opponents argue that the broadband market, far from broken, is a great economic success story that could end if the government were to impose burdensome open Internet regulatory and compliance requirements.

“I think there’s this sort of odd fetishism about the number of companies that operate in a certain space,” said Andrew Moylan, vice president of government affairs at the National Taxpayers Union. “I think that what matters more than the number of companies that operate are the actual results for consumers. And I think that if you look back at the late nineties and the early aughts and compare it to today, in terms of the speed and quality of the Internet today, I mean it’s light years different. And so whether there were 13 competitors or one—I mean those are considerations, they’re not things that should be ignored necessarily, but it’s dramatically less important than the actual objective results, and the actual objective results have been incredible for consumers.”

It’s not an idle debate. In December 2010, the Federal Communications Commission, by a 3-2 party-line vote, enacted a baseline set of open Internet rules. That came after months of closed-door negotiations with industry stakeholders, public-interest groups and lawmakers failed to achieve a consensus, and the rules enacted left all parties involved unsatisfied.

Members of the new Republican majority in the House were outraged at what they saw as a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, while net neutrality supporters felt the rules didn’t go far enough and worried that the agency had based its action on a tenuous legal argument.

Indeed, Verizon brought a lawsuit challenging the FCC’s order in federal court. The court is not expected to deliver its decision before the November election, though an earlier case, in which a panel of appellate judges struck down an order the FCC had issued rebuking Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer traffic on its network, figures to loom large. Panelists in Tuesday’s debate from groups on the left and right agreed that the court is likely to reject the FCC’s latest net neutrality order.

For Phil Kerpen, the head of the free-market advocacy group American Commitment and author of a book roundly criticizing the Obama presidency, those procedural issues cast the net neutrality saga as a more fundamental problem of executive overreach than the narrower questions of market analysis and broadband competition.

“I think the net neutrality issue is extraordinarily important politically for a very different reason, which is it’s one of the principal examples of this administration disregarding the American people, the United States Constitution, the United States Congress and the United States court system to pursue a radical, ideologically motivated agenda at all costs and via whatever mechanisms they deem appropriate,” Kerpen said.

Antitrust, Spectrum

Obama administration critics have also seized on the regulatory review process that executive agencies have conducted examining blockbuster transactions in the tech sector. In the case of Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal, which ultimately was approved, some members of Congress and officials at the FCC complained that that agency had dragged on its review unnecessarily long. Then, more recently, similar objections were heard when federal regulators derailed AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile.

Currently, the Department of Justice and FCC are conducting another review—not of a merger, but a transaction involving Verizon Wireless’ proposed purchase of $3.6 billion worth of spectrum licenses from a consortium of cable companies that would also entail a cross-promotional marketing and joint operating agreement between the entities.

Lawmakers and advocates of all stripes tend to agree that more spectrum should be freed up for mobile broadband—an argument Verizon is making to sell the deal—but critics have warned that it will create an alliance among one-time competitors in the wireless and cable industries, amounting to further consolidation in the broadband services sector.

“The deal amounts to a covenant not to compete,” Schwartzman said. “It amounts to a deal in which Verizon says, ‘We are not going to build out any more wired connectivity. We’re going to focus on wireless.’ And a deal in which the cable companies say, ‘We’re giving up on wireless. We’re going to focus on wired and then we’re going to cross-sell.'”

Verizon and its defenders reliably counter that the firm is not giving up on its wireline FiOS service, but rather placing a bigger bet behind wireless, a core strength, and in so doing making the most out of the secondary spectrum market that reform advocates, including the chairman of the FCC, have insisted is an integral part of any solution to the spectrum crunch. To nix the Verizon deal, they argue, would be another instance of Obama administration regulatory and antitrust authorities overreaching to block a transaction that would improve services for consumers and address a real policy problem in the process.

The extent to which presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney or President Obama will highlight these issues in their campaigns remains to be seen. But it seems clear enough that the broad lines on which the debates are drawn—the proper role of government in overseeing private markets, limitations on bureaucratic authority and steps needed to foster a pro-growth business environment while checking corporate excesses—will echo out across the campaign trail over the next six months.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for

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